THE MASS non-payment campaign against the poll tax inspired millions to get organised and take action in their local areas. But it was Militant supporters (now Socialist Party members) who played the key role in arguing for and carrying through the strategy and tactics which eventually proved victorious. MARK WAINWRIGHT looks back at our role.
MILITANT SUPPORTERS identified what the poll tax was going to become. Having been first implemented in Scotland, it was only our candidates in the 1987 general election who even mentioned the poll tax coming to England and Wales – Labour said nothing!
Extensive discussion took place amongst Militant supporters about how to galvanise action across the UK. In April 1988, after Peter Taaffe spoke at a Scottish meeting of our supporters, the tactic of mass non-payment was agreed.
Other groups argued for ‘non-registration’ but this carried higher penalties and the real issue was people not being able to pay. The Socialist Workers Party initially argued that only industrial action by council unions could win and that mass non-payment was a non-starter.
We produced lots of explanatory material that built up the confidence of people not to pay when the entire political establishment, with the exception of about ten MPs, were saying you had to pay.
We also campaigned for councils not to collect it and for industrial action if any one was threatened with having their benefits attached or threatened with jail. However, over time it was mass non-payment that was taken up.
Arguing for ‘mass’ action was vital because many people in the Scottish National Party and some Labour parties, argued for a few token non-payers – a ‘Can pay, won’t pay’ campaign.
We countered with ‘the slogan Can’t pay; won’t pay’ and it was this that brought the mass campaign together.
I remember sitting in a Militant meeting in Glasgow where the poster was to be designed. We looked at a few layouts and decided on the phrase that said it all – ‘Pay NO Poll Tax’. It became the slogan of millions and was reproduced in every town and city in Britain.
Groups of Militant supporters hit the estates. Often five or six anti-poll tax unions (APTUs) could be set up in one local area.
Scotland was moving first and Militant supporters organised solidarity from England and Wales – the first big demo in Glasgow included a packed 700-strong ‘Red Train’ from London.
In England and Wales Militant supporters adopted the same methods – local public meetings out of which APTUs were formed. Meetings were absolutely packed and it was not uncommon for more than 100 people to turn up.
We recognised the need to build a structure which could co-ordinate local APTUs and campaigns nationally and so set up the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation (the Fed).
The movement elected a majority of Militant supporters to the Fed National Committee but we also involved as many other organised groupings as possible. In fact, we stood candidates down in three areas (where we had a majority) precisely to bring other people onto the national body – all to strengthen the movement.
The APTUs also took to the courts where around 20 million people were summoned. Militant supporters pioneered the legal tactics and brought entire courts to a standstill – some clerks would negotiate with us; lawyers volunteered to take up appeals.
When people faced jail – around 15 Militant supporters were jailed including Terry Fields, MP for Broadgreen – but with lawyers like Richard Wise, they could often be legally sprung in hours.
It was a massive burst of energy by millions of people. It was their victory. But Militant’s guiding role was vital. It concentrated the hard pounding the government took, forcing their retreat and Thatcher’s resignation.